NEW YORK – Late-night hosts didn’t waste a moment poking fun at the troubles of one of their own, after a CBS newsman was charged with trying to blackmail David Letterman for $2 million in a plot that forced the comic to acknowledge having sex with some of the women who have worked for him.
The bizarre case has created a messy legal and professional problem for one of CBS’ most valuable personalities. Commentators and bloggers quickly accused Letterman of hypocrisy because he has made a career of mocking politicians mercilessly, often for their sexual transgressions.
Robert (Joe) Halderman, a producer for the true-crime show “48 Hours Mystery,” pleaded not guilty in a Manhattan court to one count of attempted first-degree grand larceny, punishable by five to 15 years in prison. Prosecutors said Halderman, who was released after posting $200,000 bail, was desperate and deep in debt.
Jay Leno, Letterman’s longtime late-night rival, kicked off his monologue Friday on NBC: “If you came here tonight for sex with a talk show host, you’ve got the wrong studio.”
On NBC’s “Late Night,” Jimmy Fallon also worked it into his monologue: “There’s a new book out called “Why Women Have Sex” that says there are 237 reasons why women have sex. And folks, Letterman knows the top 10.”
It remains to be seen whether Letterman will suffer long-term damage just as his career appears to be peaking. Letterman has taken over as the king of late-night in the ratings this summer, and last week he beat NBC’s “Tonight” show host Conan O’Brien for the first time among young viewers.
Friday night’s “Late Show” was taped in advance on Thursday, meaning Letterman won’t be taping an episode after his revelation until at least Monday. But Friday’s show did include a moment – coincidental in retrospect – when guest Larry David unwittingly suggested that he beat Letterman’s record of having the fewest number of dates for someone with a TV show.
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Letterman, grinning knowingly.
Halderman’s connection to Letterman was not immediately clear, but public records show that until August, he lived in Norwalk, Conn., with Stephanie Birkitt, a 34-year-old woman who works on the “Late Show” staff and used to work at “48 Hours.”
Birkitt was an assistant to Letterman on the “Late Show” and frequently appeared on camera with the host in comedy bits. Last month, Birkitt moved to Manhattan. There was no answer Friday at a phone listed in her name.
Halderman wouldn’t speak to reporters at his house Saturday morning and threatened to call police if they didn’t leave the private road that leads to his modest three-bedroom house.
It was unclear how many women were involved with Letterman, 62, who married longtime girlfriend Regina Lasko in March. The couple began dating in 1986 and have a son, Harry, born in November 2003.
All the affairs took place before Letterman’s marriage, said Tom Keaney, spokesman for Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants. Keaney also said Letterman “is not in violation” of the company’s harassment policy “and no one has ever raised a complaint against him.”
CBS issued a statement Friday: “We think it was appropriate for Dave to disclose the matter publicly as he has, and we are continuing to cooperate with authorities.”
CBS would not address questions about whether Letterman faced any disciplinary actions for relationships with subordinates.
Halderman gave the talk show host a package of materials that “contained clear, explicit and actual threats that indicate this defendant … (wanted to) destroy the reputation of Mr. Letterman and to submit him and his family to humiliation and ridicule,” Assistant District Attorney Judy Salwen said in court.
Halderman, hands cuffed behind his back, stared at the floor during most of Friday’s court hearing and said only “not guilty.”
His lawyer, Gerald Shargel, said Halderman worked at CBS for 27 years and had no prior criminal record. He described him as an involved father who coached soccer, baseball and football and has two children, ages 11 and 18.
“This story is far more complicated than what you heard this afternoon,” Shargel said outside court, but he would not elaborate.
Halderman allegedly left an envelope in Letterman’s car early Sept. 9. According to authorities, he wrote that he needed money and said Letterman’s world would “collapse around him” if damaging information about him were made public.
Letterman acknowledged that the letter contained proof that the late-night host had sexual relationships with members of his staff.
Three meetings between Letterman’s lawyer and Halderman subsequently took place, the last two with the lawyer recording the conversations and prosecutors listening in, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said.
At the last meeting, on Wednesday, the lawyer gave Halderman a phoney cheque for $2 million, Morgenthau said.
Halderman deposited the cheque Thursday and was arrested that day, he said.
It’s the second set of embarrassing headlines for Letterman in four months. He apologized on the air earlier this summer for a crude joke involving Sarah Palin’s family. But when the controversy continued to swirl, he came back after a weekend to offer a stronger mea culpa.
Letterman’s contract with CBS runs through next August, though the network has been in negotiations to continue that through 2012.